After improvement, drought deepens again

ST. LOUIS -- The worst U.S. drought in decades has deepened again after more than a month of encouraging reports of slowly improving conditions, a drought-tracking consortium said yesterday, as scientists struggled for an explanation other than a simple lack of rain.

While more than half of the continental U.S. has been in a drought since summer, rain storms had appeared to be easing the situation week by week since late September. But yesterday's weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report showed slight increases in the portion of the country in drought and the severity of it.

The report showed that 60.1 percent of the lower 48 states were in some form of drought as of Tuesday, up from 58.8 percent the previous week. The amount of land in extreme or exceptional drought -- the two worst classifications -- increased from 18.3 percent to 19.04 percent.

The Drought Monitor's map tells the story, with dark red blotches covering the center of the nation and parts of Texas and the Southeast as an indication of where conditions are the most intense.

Those areas are surrounded by others in lesser stages of drought, with only the Northwest, Florida and a narrow band from New England south to Mississippi escaping.

Richard Heim, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, cautioned that yesterday's numbers shouldn't be alarming. While drought usually subsides heading into winter, the Drought Monitor report merely reflects a week without rain in a large chunk of the country, he said

There was no clear, scientific explanation for why the drought was lingering or an estimate of how long it would last, Heim said.

After a summer in which farmers watched helpless as their corn dried up in the heat and their soybeans became stunted, many are now worrying about their winter wheat.

It has come up at a rate on par with non-drought years, but the quality of the crop doesn't look good, according to the USDA.

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